Sunday, December 8, 2013

Paul Buhle's Radical Jesus

Review of Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith
Paul Buhle, Editor
Sabrina Jones, Gary Dumm, Nick Thorkelson, Artists

Paul Buhle is one of the most prolific and insightful critics from the American left.  While his topics at first glance appear incredibly eclectic, closer reading uncovers a sharp focus that thoughtfully challenges class disparity, racism, and imperialism in the United States and throughout the world.  The breadth of his work, even if you consider only his collaborative graphic titles, is mind-boggling as the topics include Che, Yiddishkeit, SDS, the Wobblies, Emma Goldman, FDR, the Beats, and Isadora Duncan.  And now, in collaboration with artists Sabrina Jones, Gary Dumm, and Nick Thorkelson, comes Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith.

Like Buhle’s prior writings, Radical Jesus investigates the inequalities that exist in the world, historically and presently, but this time through a theological lens.  After an introduction, the sections of the book are “Radical Gospel,” “Radical History,” and “Radical Resistance.”  As a focus for reading the book we can assume that liberation theology began with Jesus and carries on at the present time.  Each section is illustrated by a different artist but is pulled together by both content and style.  As Buhle explains in the Introduction: “The book has been designed with a purposeful color progression from black and white in the first section, to a color choice reminiscent of the illuminated texts of the Middle Ages, to the full color of modern times.”  Combining substance and style, the drawings and text constantly switches between social issues of the past and the present.  Interviewed by a reporter for the Brown University newspaper, Buhle said that he wrote the book for the young people involved in the Occupy Movement.

Oh, let’s say I was speaking to those young people. I’m not a person who goes to church. But I was speaking to those young people and to others who were looking for some alternative, there’s one page in the comic that says no to either passivity or violence. For some other way to respond to the crises, and you know, Americans by and large, still, have this religious thing, this mystique. It’s good to think of a way to speak to them in this fashion.

There are numerous poignant frames in Radical Jesus – below are some samples.  With stark black and white graphics page 23 in the “Radical Gospel” section, by Sabrina Jones, begins with a priest looking at a dead man lying in the street, “unclean – better keep away!”  Another priest does the same but then comes the Good Samaritan who helps the man who isn’t dead – who is the Christian.  Stories of Jesus and class disparity continue in this section with a distressing sequence on preaching and religious leaders on page 35, “They preach – But they don’t practice.”  Reminiscent of of Bishop Tutu’s story of Europeans coming to Africa: “We had the land and they had the bible.  Then they said, ‘Let us pray.’  And we dutifully shut our eyes, and when we said amen at the end and opened our eyes, why, they had the land and we had the bible.”  But of course Bishop Tutu said much more.  Corresponding to Radical Jesus:

This God did not just talk… He showed himself to be a doing God.  Perhaps we might add another point about God – he takes sides.  He is not a neutral God.  He took the side of the slaves, the oppressed, the victims.  He is still the same even today; he sides with the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, and the victims of injustice.

Gary Dumm did the “Radical History” section of the book with Laura Dumm and others.  This section tells the story of dissent beginning in the 14th Century and concluding with the abolitionists.  John Wycliffe, the Anabaptists, Quakers and the Grimke sisters are introduced with many other people who challenged church hierarchy in the name of social justice.  On page 63 Buhle collaborates with Dumm on a story called “Escape from Galley Slavery.”

Some martyrs were burned at the stake, others were drowned, decapitated, had their tongues ripped out, or their mouths filled with gunpowder.  To go to a violent death with cold determination or even good cheer was to prove to all present that the believer placed ultimate trust in God’s judgment.

However, these executions were ultimately cynical and class disparately vicious.

French and Belgian royal courts sometimes offered ‘banquets’ for the intended victim the day before the execution.  In the city hall, the accused would be compelled to take the seat of honor between the mayor and a local religious leader while being mocked and offered expensive food and wine.

Many a martyr refused to eat or drink!

The last pages of “Radical History” speak to the Quakers in Pennsylvania losing the fight for Indian rights.  Two frames appear on page 85 with the first showing Quaker representatives in the Pennsylvania Assembly resigning and walking out of the chambers in protest of oppressive actions to attack Indians.  The second frame, titled “What was Lost,” depicts people in a living room watching a baseball game between the Philadelphia Quakers and New York Iroquois – shades of Howard Zinn history.

The 39 pages of the book’s last section, “Radical Resistance,” is thick as the art of Nick Thorkelson and the text speak to the many more modern quests for social justice through questions/statements of a grand diversity of people on-the-ground testifying at a faith-based meeting.  The courage of abolitionist Sojourner Truth is portrayed in a story called “Steal Away: Abolitionism and Black Freedom.”  We meet those who fought for civil rights in the United States like Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttleworth, Bob Moses, and many people whose names we don’t know.  The New Jim Crow is portrayed on page 104 with Reverend Jeremiah Wright connecting the incarceration of blacks in the United States with the plight of Jesus.  On Reverend Wright: “A prophetic voice much maligned in the mainstream media but cherished by the thousands of black churches allied against mass incarceration.”

“Radical Resistance” also tell us of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin’s Catholic Worker movement as a lead into the anti-war actions of the Berrigan brothers – liberation theology and the work and political assassination in El Salvador of Archbishop Oscsar Romero.  All of these accounts of activism conclude with stories of people that we have never heard of that fight for social justice in both their communities and throughout the world – and there lies the ‘mission’ of Paul Buhle and his collaborators in Radical Jesus.  Buhle writes:

The radicalism of Jesus has nothing to do with men hoarding guns against the imagined threat of black helicopters, or bearded fanatics burning down schools for women.  Instead, Jesus goes to the roots of assorted hatreds – not only our destructive exploitation of humanity but also our plundering of creation.  All of life is endangered and we cannot afford these hatreds running rampant much longer.

Radical Jesus is a book that provides the stories of models, teachers, for the young people for whom Buhle says the book was written.  The book’s portraits, graphics and text, are thoughtful, powerful, and are important not only for young activists, but rather for all of us who thoughtfully work for social justice.

Don’t Eulogize Mandela as a Hallmark Card

Long-time South African educator and President of the New Unity Movement, R. O. Dudley had a quote that he used when speaking of various iconic South African struggle leaders – “he had arms, not wings.”  It is a phrase that we should remember when speaking of the late Nelson Mandela, but unfortunately, press coverage in the United States as well as throughout the world has turned Madiba into a Hallmark greeting card figure.  And while Mandela’s role as a freedom fighter and the major force in reconciliation in the new democratic South Africa should be honored and celebrated – we must remember that we are talking about a complex revolutionary, and also a complex politician.

No one argues with Mandela’s leadership in the African National Congress during the fifties and through the 1964 Rivonia Trial where he and seven comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment.  The key word here, though, is comrades, because Nelson Mandela always worked with other people in the struggle, during his time at Robben Island Prison, and of course in both the negotiations with the apartheid regime and the forming of the first South African democratic government in 1994.  President Barack Obama was totally in error when he said that Mandela’s life proved the power of one man with courage and vision could change the world.

So – point number one!  Nelson Mandela worked with comrades throughout the struggle and beyond.  Internal colonialism, racism, class disparity and extreme oppression were part of South African history long before the apartheid regime came to power in the late 1940s.  Nelson Mandela collaborated with other activists, black, Indian, coloured, and white, at Wits University in Johannesburg and it was within this grouping, as well as from his fellow African National Congress Youth League leaders that he came to a belief in nonracialism.  I was asked last week if he was criticized for promoting nonracialism during the struggle and I answered that he actually late came to the party.  He clearly stated that it was the struggle commitment of fellow students at Wits – Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Bram Fischer, Ishmael Meer, Norman Levy, J.N. Singh and others, as well as his close friends, and struggle stalwarts Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, that changed his view on the struggle.  A view that went from African Unity and only fighting racism to a belief that imperialism, class disparity, and racism were all connected.

Countless are the continuing statements on Nelson Mandela as a man of peace and love and forgiveness – none of them are untrue yet they are clearly only a partial portrait as Nelson Mandela was part of a struggle fighting against what Bishop Desmond Tutu often refers to as a “pigmentocracy.”  And an organized pigmentocracy at that.  Throughout the 1950s beginning with the Defiance Campaign against the magnification of racist legislation, to the Freedom Charter calling for democracy for all South Africans, to the 1956 Treason Trial, the mission of Mandela and his struggle comrades was to change the South African government.  However Gandhian the strategy and tactics of this part of the struggle took, the government oppression became more harsh, more violent, and more oppressive.  Thus, by 1962, for Nelson Mandela, who had gone underground, as well as his comrades, it could not be all peace and love.   Before he was arrested that year Mandela was clandestinely interviewed by British journalist Brian Widlake. 

If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent demonstrations we will have to seriously reconsider our tactics. In my mind, we are closing a chapter on this question of non-violent policy.

Mandela was actually asking the apartheid regime, once again, to question their own policy of harsh, violent, repression.  And what he was proposing at this point was not actually armed struggle, but rather armed propaganda – attacks on government facilities in an attempt to show, first, the people, and then the government, that the apartheid regime was not invulnerable.

At this point, 1962, armed propaganda didn’t do much to reach either goal and although Mandela, in partnership with Joe Slovo, had written a document for armed struggle, called Operation Mayibuye, and cadres of struggle soldiers were sent out of South Africa for military training, the arrests at Rivonia crippled the struggle for almost a decade.  Yet even at trial Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary – his message certainly wasn’t peace and love.  His now famous speech in the court deserves repeating.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Mandela went to Robben Island prison in 1964 and would not see freedom until 1990.  In fact, his face was not even seen in a photograph again until 1988 – representation of the totality of apartheid.  His interactions in prison, however, were both revolutionary and human, and in spite of the harsh conditions he faced he was involved in political conversations across the boundaries of competing struggle organizations and was very much part of what prisoners referred to as Robben Island: Our University.

But Nelson Mandela spent the struggle years in prison and it was comrades like Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo, Pallo Jordan, Ronnie Kasrils and younger MK soldiers that continued the struggle-in-exile.  Within South Africa black people on the ground and the in country exemplification of the ANC, the United Democratic Front, kept the struggle alive.  But by the mid-eighties Nelson Mandela was part of the conversations with the apartheid regime and he was released in 1990.  It must be remembered that South Africa did not have a successful armed revolution, but rather a negotiated settlement.  And this is where Nelson Mandela becomes a politician.

So while I do not begrudge the peace and love eulogies nor question the magnitude of the end of organized and legislative apartheid in South Africa, I again think that it is important to view Madiba with more complexity.  No one will ever claim that the negotiations with the apartheid regime were easy and it is here where Mandela’s brilliance as a politician comes front and center.  Yes, it was important that he publicly stood up to DeKlerk.  But one has to question whether these clashes played well for both men within their own constituencies.  We have to also wonder at which point the United States, United Kingdom, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund entered negotiations about negotiations.  Because the formal negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid regime is where Mandela’s political brilliance is paramount.  Nelson Mandela basically sidelined (albeit temporarily) Thabo Mbeki and chose three negotiators that represented the far left of the struggle – Cyril Ramphosa then of the Mineworkers Union and Joe Slovo and Mac Maharaj from the South African Communist Party.  Did Madiba know that selling what would surely become a neo-liberal transition to the struggle left was more difficult that negotiating with the enemy?  Did Madiba know that he needed Joe Slovo to proclaim the sunset clauses that would protect the jobs of apartheid regime bureaucrats?  Again a question – but one surely worth asking.

What we do know is that neo-liberalism came with vengeance to South Africa and that the ANC and President Mandela became partners with the west. But we also know that in the early struggle years Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary who believed and fought for a people’s democracy.  So even if there is much more complexity than the present eulogies exhibit – Madiba is still deserving.  And the hope, at least from my perspective, is that the love of people that these Hallmark eulogies proclaim, will lead to 1980s struggle conversations and actions that address the class disparity, lack of services, freedom of press issues, and corruption that exist today in South Africa.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Review of Public Enemy by Bill Ayers

Review of Public Enemy: Confessions of An American Dissident
Bill Ayers
(Beacon, 2013)

Bill Ayers and the Radical ‘Spark’ – Past and Present

“They just don’t get it.”  Yes, the phrase is overused, yet, all too appropriate when addressing the continuing critiques, from both the left and the right, of Bill Ayers. The recent publication of the second phase of his memoir, Public Enemy: Confessions of An American Dissident, was followed on the “SDS and ‘60s Leftists” page of Facebook by an un-thoughtful conversation on Ayers, his comrade and wife Bernardine Dohrn, and the Weather Underground (WO).  Facilitated by George Fish and responding to a negative book review by Jon Wiener, 43 comments followed Fish’s post.  Mostly sour, bitter, and ahistorical in tone, the comments provide the antithesis of Ayers’ book and life, that of learning from the past and continuing, in a human and life affirming way, the ongoing struggle that began for Ayers in the civil rights movement, antiwar movement, Students for A Democratic Society, and then the Weather Underground.

When confronted by a radio interviewer who referred to the sub-title as snide, Ayers softly replied that the entire title was chosen for its irony.  Missing both the breadth and depth of Public Enemy, the interviewer as well as Wiener and other critics fail to acknowledge the thoughtfulness and energy that Ayers brings to struggle, both past and present.  In this particular book, we alternate between the author’s recollections of first, his experience in the 2008 attempt to demonize Barack Obama because he “palled around with terrorists,” and, second, the years after he surfaced from underground beginning in 1980 from where Ayers left-off in his previous book, Fugitive Days.  There are both multiple and complex events, issues, and ideas presented in Public Enemy.  A sampling will be discussed in this review.

Recently, South African anti-apartheid struggle leader and Constitutional Court Justice (comparable to the U.S. Supreme Court) Albie Sachs spoke at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.  Talking about his country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Sachs emphasized the importance of acknowledgement for both personal and political healing.  Acknowledgement causes me to return to the radio interviewer’s portrayal of Confessions of An American Dissident as snide. In fact, irony aside, Ayers responded by talking about acknowledging one particular flaw during his time in WO.  He asserted that neither he nor his comrades ever doubted their positions and that by not being skeptical they were arrogant and without reflection.  Doubt is discussed in Public Enemy and Ayers also talks about apologetics within a conceptual framework of an American Truth Commission.  In both the book and current media interviews, Ayers has continually repeated that neither he nor the WO ever killed anyone in the bombings of buildings.

Not only did I never kill or injure anyone, but in the six years of its existence, the Weather Underground never killed or injured anyone either.  We crossed lines of legality to be sure, of propriety, and perhaps even of common sense, but it was restrained, and those are the simple, straightforward facts.

The correct term for Weather Underground bombings, in correspondence to the armed struggle in South Africa, is “armed propaganda.”  And like Umkhonto We Sizwe underground soldiers in South Africa, Ayers would welcome the opportunity to answer queries about his WO activities at an American TRC.  In Public Enemy Ayers writes:

America, it seemed to me, was in urgent need of some kind of truth and reconciliation process… We needed a process to understand the truth of the past in order to create the possibility of a more balanced future… Everyone together would have the opportunity to tell their stories of suffering, and the victimizers would be asked why and how they created that misery.  Society would have the opportunity to witness all of it in order to understand the extent and depth of the disaster as a step toward putting it behind us and moving forward.  In that setting and standing with Kissinger and McCain, McNamara and Kerry, Bush and Cheney, I’d be happy to say exactly what I did, take full responsibility, and bow deeply.  But without any chain of culpability whatsoever, I’ll stand on the record, or just stand aside.

While five chapters in Public Enemy present the threats and black listing Bill Ayers experienced during and after the 2008 presidential campaign, I will address the topic with brevity as it has already been explored in other reviews.  An in-depth description and analysis is portrayed in Maya Schwenwar’s Truthout review, “Bill Ayers Weighs in on Democracy, Selfhood, and His ‘Unrepentant Terrorist’ Alter-Ego.”  Besides endless email threats and having someone actually come to his office at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Ayers was banned from talking on college campuses throughout the country.  At the time my colleague at the University of South Carolina, Craig Kridel, the Curator of the Museum of Education, posted a page titled “The Bill Ayers Problem” on the Museum webpage.  The page title, like Public Enemy, is ironic and at the time I wrote:

The inequality, unfairness, violence, and global greed are what Bill Ayers has fought against for many years. The fight is every bit as important today as it was during the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam War. And while some people might call me insensitive because I refuse to enter a debate on Bill Ayers as a terrorist, I choose not to speak back to the cries of O’Reilly, Hannity, and Colmes and their nameless comrades because the work Bill Ayers is doing does not need defenders but, rather, supporters and allies that fight for a more just world. Finally, as an academic who works with teachers who fought against apartheid in South Africa, I can’t help but think that the same people who define Bill Ayers as a terrorist would have given that label to Nelson Mandela and his less known comrades during the struggle against the apartheid regime. We know now what history says about that – we can only hope that Bill Ayers and many other people continue their work as progressive educators and activists.

But Bill Ayers does not rail against his detractors in his writing.  Rather, while he is critical in a political/personal way of their harassment and silencing and analyzes their actions, his emphasis is a celebration of people who continue the struggle.  While the story of the cancellation of his talk at the University of Wyoming is politically important, from Ayers we learn more about the woman who fought for his right to speak.  More accurately, she fought for her own free speech.

‘I’m going to sue the university in federal court,’ she told me during our first conversation.  ‘And I’m claiming that it’s my free speech that’s been violated – I have the right to speak to anyone I want to, and right now I want to speak to you.’  She was young and unafraid, smart and sassy, her dreams being rapidly made and used – no fear, no regret.  I liked her immediately.  Meg’s approach struck me as quite brilliant – students (and not I) were indeed the injured party.

The University of Wyoming student won the case and Bill Ayers spoke on democracy and education with over 1,000 people at the University.  In discussing the event, he also honors his sister’s father-in-law, a retired United Church of Christ minister who drove a couple of hours to Laramie for the talk and told Bill: “‘The Lord moves in mysterious ways,’ he said with a wink and a smile gesturing with his Bible.  ‘If any of the crazy Christians get out of hand, he wants me to set them straight.’”

Ayers writes of other cancellations at places throughout the country.  The University of Nebraska stands out but only because he was in Tapai at the time and was woken with the news from a dean at three in the morning.  In contrast to Nebraska, there are brave academics at Millersville University and Georgia Southern University where Ayers was welcomed.  At Millersville administrators explained that it was their “duty and honor” to have him speak.  “It’s not about you personally, it’s about the mission and the meaning of the university.”

Honoring people throughout Bill Ayers’ journey is the stuff of Public Enemy.  One of the funniest yet potent tales is the reaction of Ayers’ comrade and friend, Michael Klonsky, when he was invited to give an education conference keynote address.  The organization told Klonsky that they had intended to invite Bill Ayers but that he was “too controversial and too radical.”  Klonsky scolded the inviter saying: “How dare you ask me to scab on Bill Ayers?”  When Ayers thanked him, he replied: “Defending you?  I wasn’t defending you, I was defending myself – I was deeply and personally offended when they said that your were too radical, and by implication that I wasn’t too radical.  I’m as radical as you are, motherfucker.”

Bill Ayers’ book is about issues, ideas, actions, and people – it is not solely about Bill Ayers.  Epsie Reyes was a colleague at the University of Illinois-Chicago.  She supported Hillary, not Barack, in the 2008 democratic primaries, and she was one of many people who consoled Bill Ayers after Hillary Clinton first demonized him in a primary presidential debate.  Reyes sent strong emails to both Clinton and the Democratic National Committee “detailing how much money she’d donated and how many weekends she’d devoted to organizing on her behalf, explaining who I really was in her ‘humble opinion,’ and encouraging, then demanding that the campaign apologize to me personally and denounce the smears – or else she would have to rethink her commitments.”

Close friends and colleagues, of course, also came through in both 2001 and 2008.  Mona and Rashid Khalidi were both supportive and insightful as were dozens of others.  In 2008 there was a surprise call from Edward Said: “Of course it’s painful for you personally, but cringing and going quiet is the worst thing you could do at this moment.  Your kids are watching you and your students too and a lot of others.  Don’t let them down.”

Said’s message corresponds to the entirety of Public Enemy.  Ayers celebrates political struggle and the people who try to sustain the fight.  Two quotes come to mind, the first from a speech by Paul Potter referred to in the book. “Don’t let your life make a mockery of your values.”  Margaret Meade’s words correspond to Potter’s connecting the personal to the collective.  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  In addition to the 2001, 2008, and more recent stories, Public Enemy includes portraits from the time Bernardine and Bill came up from underground in 1980.  Ayers writes admiringly about his childrens’ pre-school teacher at the time, BJ, whom he refers to as “an inspired early childhood educator.”  “She was one of a kind, and everyone knew it.”  Ayers’ portrait of BJ brought a response in Ron Jacobs’
 Counterpunch article, “Get Bill Ayers,” “Indeed, the truest hero in the book is the family’s New York child care provider, BJ.”

On Bill’s journey we meet Bernardine’s lawyers Eleanora Kennedy and Michael Kennedy and various other people including Ellie and Robby Meeropol who were Bill’s friends at the University of Michigan.  Robby was the son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and he was three years old when his parents were executed.  Bernardine and Bill had just adopted Chesa Boudin whose parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, had been sentenced for murder in the Brinks Robbery in Nyack, New York.  Robby explained that there was no road map and that times would be rough for Chesa – honest responses are very much a part of the many vignettes that Ayers presents throughout Public Enemy.

The real heart of the book, however, within the context of continuing struggle, is the authentic portrayal of the Dohrn/Ayers family – Bernardine Dohrn and their sons Chesa, Malik, and Zayd.  The book depicts seriousness and humor and mostly respect and admiration.  There is a story from the early above ground days that I must include in this review.

Leaving swim class one day, we were swept up into a raucous women-led march heading from Broadway and Fifty-ninth Street toward Times Square.  ‘No more porn!  No more porn! No more porn!” we chanted ecstatically, fists pumping and voices rising as we entered the pornography district.  It was a feisty and colorful crowd, our attendance just a happy accident, but with Zayd cheerfully perched on my shoulders we were in high spirits and quite pleased to be in cahoots.  Soon we spotted a pizza stand along the route, and Zayd was famished from swimming and ready for a slice, so we settled into a booth.  Zayd reflected on the parade we’d just left: ‘That was fun,’ he said.  ‘Why don’t we want more corn?’

Ayers tells the story of all three sons advising him during 2008 and the respect appears to go both ways.  Pages 129 to 131 serve as an illustration as Malik, Zayd, and Chesa join Bernardine in coaxing Bill not to speak with the media – a disposition alien to his being.  Malik warns him of ambush and it recalls Mailer’s self-admonitions of never talk to the press – they control the story.

The consensus from them, in line with Bernardine’s steady and consistent basic instinct, was that whatever happened on the web or in the press, we should simply turn away.  No comment, no elaboration, no clarification, no response.  ‘Be completely quiet,’ they said, ‘and stay calm.’  ‘It’s harder then it sounds,’ Zayd added, looking right at me, ‘especially for you.’  True, too true: I tend to have a lot on my mind – who doesn’t? – and I’m genetically wired to speak up and speak out, and not always with considered judgment.  My default position, no matter what, is to say something… ‘You’ll get flattened,’ they now said in unison.’

Bill Ayers remained silent through 2008, but of course, “palling around with terrorists” quietly lives on.  There is an ethos throughout Public Enemy, consistently present in the ideas, issues, actions, and people portrayed in the book, amidst everything else – this book is homage to Bernardine Dohrn.  Her strength, thoughtfulness, commitment, and humanity is the spirit of Public Enemy: Confessions of An American Dissident.  Whether it is gently chiding Bill with their children or being warmly welcomed back by the judge in Chicago when she surfaced from underground – her humanity is ever present.  Political commitment is obvious in Dohrn’s first above ground statement: “This is no surrender.  The fight against racism and war continues, and I will spend my energy organizing to defeat the American empire.”  Ayers writes of her actions and dispositions when she was imprisoned at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York for refusing to give Grand Jury testimony on the Brinks Robbery.  The emotion of being away from her kids but at the same time focused political commitment.  There is also a great story of her mother passing on contraband when she visited the prison – a chocolate chip cookie!

There is much more to Public Enemy than the samples that I present.  Bill Ayers critiques the Weather Underground and provides much more breadth to the ideas, issues, actions, people, and events he portrays.  He also pushes his story to the present and therein lies the further message.  Ayers, Dohrn, and many of their WO (and beyond) comrades continue to work for the same issues they have pursued beginning in the sixties.  For Ayers it is education and more and the latter includes working with young activists who continue the fight for the end of racism, class disparity, and imperialism.  First in the civil rights movement, then SDS and WO, Ayers was part of the “spark” for a just world.  His book is a partial story of continuing to keep that “spark” alive today.

Alan Wieder

Alan Wieder is the author of Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid (Monthly Review Press, 2013)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Retro-Review - Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer - Eric Mann (Beacon Press, 2011)

Eric Mann's Playbook for Progressives is two books in one.  The book wouldn't work any other way.  Mann is true to his title and introduction, presentings a 74-page section on the roles of an organizer.  Included in this section are 12 specific yet overlapping responsibilities that are representative of political organizers -- foot soldier, evangelist, recruiter, group builder, strategist, tactician, communicator, political educator, agitator, fundraiser, comrade & confidante, and cadre.  The second section of the book,"16 Qualities of a Successful Organizer, takes the roles of the first section further by building on the earlier descriptions with substantive portraits of strategy and tactics that are crucial for successful radical, political, organizing.

Playbook for Progressives is not two books because it includes distinct sections, but rather because Mann combines theory and action, with biography and autobiography, to bring alive, through real lives, what radical organizing means in the struggle against racism and class disparity in the United States and throughout the world. 

Eric Mann one of the founders the Labor/Community Strategy Center (LCSC) in 1989, has been the organization's Director since its inception.  His earlier political work included being a Field Secretary for The Congress of Racial Equality, an aboveground member of Weatherman, and a radical, activist/organizer in automobile and airplane production plants throughout the country.  Many of the examples of radical organizing in the book are the stories of Mann and other organizers at LCSC.  Mann explains in the introduction of Playbook for Progressives that the organization was launched as "an experiment to reassert the powerful, positive impact of progressive ideology and transformative organizing." As an aspect of the rationale for the Center, Mann writes about 'activists' wanting seats at the tables of power -- an issue that might be even more problematic at the present time.

Labor and community organizers began talking about 'empowerment' rather than power, 'a seat at the table' rather than concrete demands and political independence, and 'public-private partnerships' rather that a challenge to the profit motive and corporate power.

Throughout the book there are also stories of many other organizers, some whose names we know and others that we don't, but all examples of people fighting class disparity and racism -- locally, nationally, and globally.  LCSC's largest undertaking is the Bus Rider's Union (BRU).  Founded in 1992, BRU's membership comprises mostly black people and Latina people who have organized to fight against the two-tiered discriminatory system of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and BRU's success is legendary beginning with a 1994 suit against the MTA that concluded with the court rescinding raised fares and bus passes.  The successes remain to this day -- of course the need for continuing this particular struggle illustrates the necessity of ongoing activism and organization.  Much more can be read about the BRU in Eric Mann's book.  While LCSC has various initiatives, the other one that I will highlight is the fight against the school-to-prison pipeline.  Briefly, LCSC is part of a coalition that has fought to de-criminalize truancy in Los Angeles -- again more of the story in Playbook for Progressives.

Mann is clear on the hard work, discipline, human warmth, and expertise necessary for progressive organizing.  He is very detailed describing and analyzing the theory and dispositions of radical activism.  "In the United States in particular, and among organizers in general, there is a pragmatic, antitheoretical tendency... The problem is that theory is an overview that gives you a map as to where you are going." Mann's detail is important, but the people's lives that he portrays wed the details to human actions.  I want people to read and re-read Playbook for Progressives.  Thus, until I come to this review's conclusion, I will provide brief portraits of Eric and a small sample of the other organizers he brings to his book.

As a young man in the mid-sixties, Mann worked with the Newark Community Union Project (NCUP) going door-to-door asking people to become involved in meetings and protests against racism and oppression.  There were sobering moments that might still occur in 2013.  Mann writes about one of the people he met:

She wanted to offer me food, but her refrigerator was almost bare.  She would bring me hot coffee, and we would sit and talk.  Once, perhaps influenced by Martin Luther King Jr.'s metaphor, I asked her if she had a dream of what her life could be like.  She told me, "My dream is that I am able to walk in front of a car and leave this life and God will not punish me for abandoning my children.

This is the "exceptional" United States of America.

And of course, the above quote speaks to the importance of Playbook for Progressives. While talking of the successes of the BRU, Mann speaks of four key elements for radical organizing.  Before citing the list Manns caveat is the Cabral quote, Tell no lies and claim no easy victories."

1.    Listen very carefully and let the person talk
2.    Show a deep concern about very specific conditions people face
3.    Present very concrete demands
4.    Frame the conversation within an up-front worldview of those fights as part of a larger social transformation

The process is exemplified in Eric's meeting and continuing work with Eduardo Fuentes in Wilmington, California where the toxic emissions of the oil companies was causing serious and sometimes fatal health conditions for the Latina (o) population.  LCSC's project was called Watchdog.  Eduardo approached Eric at a meeting and told him that his local organization, Parents Against Pollution, shared the values of Watchdog.  As Eric attempted to build a coalition of the two groups he learned that Eduardo was the group.  "I asked him how many parents were in the group and he said, 'One. Me.'"  More importantly, Eduardo was reticent about joining Watchdog.  Eric had written a book on the topic and the values and actions of LCSC on the issue clearly corresponded to those of Eduardo Fuentes -- yet he was leery.  As the two men met Eduardo asked about the action part of Watchdog -- picketing, sit-ins.  He then explained that in his native Guatemala "the government, with the support of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, kidnap and kill indigenous peoples, union leaders, and revolutionaries." Eduardo was also concerned about the anti-immigrant movement in the United States.  But Eric Mann had followed all four of the key elements of radical organizing cited above and spoke about the safeguards for the 'undocumented' in Watchdog actions.  Not only did Eduardo Fuentes join the project, he became a local leader in Wilmington.

Mann writes of strategy and provides more real life examples.  An illustration is the work of Manuel Criollo, who directs the organizing at LCSC.  There are stories from the Bus Riders Union and that of Deloros Huerta, the legendary United Farmworkers leader.  The third chapter of Section Two has the great title, Sings with the Choir but Finds Her Own Voice, the perfect mantra for organizing and a peoples socialism.  Another chapter, Generosity of Spirit: Take Good Care of Others, tells the early 1960s organizing story of The Newark Community Union Project, but also extends the camaraderie to the present as group organizers, living throughout the country, fight for the housing rights of Terry Jefferson, one of their comrades, now 87 years old.  Mann tells the tale of his activist work with Mark Masaoka at the Van Nuys General Motors plant in the 1980s.  And finally, not really as there are additional personal/political vignettes, Mann tells the story of the coalition of New York Domestic Workers and Shalom Bayit Jews for Racial and Economic Justice that culminated in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

Corresponding to the peoples stories, Mann connects theory and practice and the many intricacies and complexities that they include.  The importance of the individual and the group is connected to conversation and reflection.

At the Strategy Center, I am fortunate to have close comrades who will take me aside, which I appreciate in itself, and explain to me things I have done that were arrogant, chauvinist, insensitive.  They will point out ways I have been inconsistent and even vacillatory changing my mind and contradicting something I said only a few days ago without realizing it.  They show me instances when I did not listen to or respect the ideas of others and assumed I was right, when in fact they understood the situation far better than I did.

Mann suggests that commitment and hard work needs to be connected to expertise with both national and global examples:
Organizers who are ill-informed about their issues can speak only the general truths of the revolution and are outmatched by the scientists and expert witnesses marshaled by their opponents.  They are usually unpersuasive, unable to effect actual change, and are used as caricatures by the system to discredit the movement.

After writing of expertise, and using more biographical and autobiographical examples, Mann explores militancy, bravery, and courage as necessary elements of radical organizing.  After telling the story of Maria Guardado: Salvadorian saint, Mann explains: The courageous example of individuals is critical, but courage must be found in a collective context.

Finally, Playbook for Progressives portrays the deeds of more well-known struggle leaders such as Audre Lorde.  Mann quotes Margaret Meade as a connector of organizing and revolutionary theory and practice and the comrades whom he portrays.

Never doubut that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, its the only thing that ever has.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience – A Retro-Review

Reading Neil Gordon’s novel and then viewing Robert Redford’s film, The Company You Keep, a fictitious portrayal of the Weather Underground Organization (WUO), led me to re-read Thai Jones’ book on his family – his mom and dad WUO people Eleanor Stein and Jeff Jones, as well as their parents, Albert Jones a Quaker and WWII conscientious objector and Annie and Arthur Stein, labor movement people and both members of the Communist Party.  While I actually liked Redford’s film and the book even more, A Radical Line is much more encompassing as it portrays generations and real lives in the continuing struggle for a democratic, socialist America – yes, Eleanor and Jeff and I think Thai, as well as many of their WUO comrades and their children, continue the fight today.

I had no intentions of writing a review as I began to re-read A Radical Line.  The story, though, is so engrossing, and Thai Jones’ combination of detail, thoughtfulness, and drama, pull you in as words bring depth to his extended family as well as collective, progressive struggle in the United States.  Jones’ craft as a writer combined with depth of story are poignant in the first two pages of the book as he describes his parents arrest through reflections of his own memories of the event as a four year old child.

There had to be something I could do to help my parents.  I made a fast survey of my possessions: a cowboy outfit, a coloring book, a stuffed Tyrannosaurus.  I opened the drawer of my little desk and picked up my child’s scissors.  The ends were rounded, and the blades were covered by blue plastic guards.  Bouncing them in my hand and snipping at the air, I considered putting on the cowboy hat and charging into the hallway with scissors blazing to defeat these men who had come to hurt our family.   Even then, I knew it was a battle against long odds.  But I didn’t realize it was a question that many in my family had already faced.  They had chosen to fight.

Throughout A Radical Line the progressive fights of Thai Jones’ extended families, WUO and earlier, are connected to the collective struggle against class disparity, racism, and the Viet Nam War.  Jeff Jones was raised in southern California and his father worked for Walt Disney Corporation.  But as already noted, Albert Jones was a pacifist, and his experience working as a conscientious objector at Civilian Public Service Camp #37 in Coleville, California during WWII is itself a story.  His path was not easy as his father disapproved and church people at the Methodist congregation that nurtured his views abandoned him – Camp #37 became home: “He was surrounded by pacifists.  Each Sunday they held a silent Quaker meeting, and that was the only time in the week that the men were not in heated discussions about their faith.  Coming here, Albert finally felt welcome.”

Jeff Jones’ early lessons were pacifism and peace and not a long leap to the civil rights movement and opposing the Viet Nam War.

Eleanor Stein’s parents were much more political.  Annie was introduced to socialism in high school and was politicized even further as a student at Hunter College.  Thai Jones describes her early participation in the National Student League and the communist party.  It was Annie who politicized Arthur.  Initially she was disheartened because her husband was apolitical, but she began leaving copies of The Daily Worker around their apartment and soon Arthur was attending meetings and demonstrations.

Like Albert Jones’s life-long commitment to non-violence, Annie and Arthur Stein never stopped fighting class disparity and racism.  While Thai Jones is much more descriptive on their lives than I can be in this short review, it is his description of their lives, including Albert’s assertion to Jeff before the Days of Rage: “Son, I believe very strongly in your goals.  But if you set out to hurt somebody, I would hope and pray that you are hurt first.” Concurrently, Eleanor was clearly nurtured by Annie’s work with civil rights stalwart Mary Church Terrell and her political work on education in NYC.  She was also nurtured by her father’s labor activism, his founding of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee chapter in Brooklyn, and his appearance before the HUAC where he was represented by Victor Rabinowitz, the attorney who also represented Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger.  Annie and Arthur sent Eleanor to Camp Lakeside, a Red Diaper summer camp.  Eleanor recalled her mother’s expulsion from the CP over China and mother continued to lecture daughter throughout Eleanor’s WUO years:

“Look,” Annie would tell Eleanor, “I lived through the 1930s when the capitalist system was on the ropes.  Labor unions were strong and men were out of work, on breadlines.”  Pausing for effect, she would light a cigarette, sip her scotch and soda, and go to the bookshelf for her copy of Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?  It was obvious in 1917,” she would say, waving the book in her daughter’s face.  “The workers were in the streets.  Who is going t0 run the means of production in your revolution?  The hippies? You’ve got to be kidding.”

The heart of A Radical Line, however, is Jeff and Eleanor’s lives in SDS and the Weather Underground and their coming together as a couple.  There are rich photographs in the center of the book – especially one of Eleanor wearing her lamb’s wool jacket with a raised fist salute in front of Columbia University Law School.  Most endearing is a page with portraits of both Thai, as a very young child, and Jeff in running gear.  We learn about Eleanor quitting law school after participating in the Columbia University student takeover in 1968 and of Jeff joining SDS while a student at Antioch.  There are other events that have been written about by Mark Rudd, Cathy Wilkerson, Bill Ayers, and others; but Thai Jones presents a different take, new insights, and of course issues that still leave us with questions about WUO and the struggle in general.  We learn a great deal about WUO life underground but for the purpose of this review I would like to address one particular issue.

It begins in early July 1969, when Eleanor was part of delegation that went to Cuba to meet with representatives of the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese government.  Others on the trip included Bernardine Dohrn and Diana Oughton.  The North Vietnamese had invited Eleanor and her comrades so that they could interact and learn how the anti-war movement in the United States might help to end the War.  One of the first lessons was on the lack of focus of American activism.  The teacher pointed out that day that anti-war slogans and chants:

     No Move Vietnams v. Two, Three, Many Vietnams
     No More Wars v Bring the War Home
     Long Live the Victory of the People’s War v. Make Love not War

were contradictory – what was the goal?

The Americans traveled Cuba with their Vietnamese mentors and one man, Nguyen Thai stood out – the man from who Thai Jones inherited his name.  There were hours and hours of discussions and Eleanor and the other Americans became focused on taking one message to the masses back home – “End the War Now.”

When they returned to the U.S., however, they were informed that their leadership had decided to form small collectives – their job was not to organize the masses.  Thai Jones writes, “Before Eleanor had even clanked down the gangway to the shore, Nguyen Thai’s plan for an all-encompassing mass movement was sunk.”

And I would argue, that it was at this point, before the forming of the Weather Underground, before the Townhouse Bombing, before the manifestos and armed propaganda, before freeing and then being betrayed by Timothy Leary, and before the break-up of WUO, the youth movement for social justice & equality in the United States was doomed.  That is, doomed as a movement.  While the Vietnamese represented and spoke of a people’s movement, people on the ground weren’t included in the United States.  The people of WUO and the anti-war movement in general were young – we didn’t take the lessons that others taught us.  We didn’t pay attention to how different Fidel and Che’s revolution in Cuba was to Che’s adventurist foray into Bolivia – we didn’t know how to organize a people’s war.

My analysis, of course, is only a small part of Thai Jones’s book.  And the people that he writes about, particularly his parents Eleanor Stein and Jeff Jones, as well as their WUO comrades, have continued, maybe not as a movement, but nevertheless continued, the fight to end class disparity and racism in the United States and throughout the World.  Their mistakes as well as their continuing commitment and passion offer important lessons.  As does Thai Jones’ book, A Radical Line.